The Unfairness of Bringing Up Loss
I read the David Sedaris piece in the New Yorker about his sister Tiffany’s suicide. I found it very moving but difficult to get through. But it’s good to be challenged; it’s good to read something that shakes you to the core every once in a while.
The article begins and ends with a thought that resonated with me. He explains that part of his identity is that he is one of six kids, and his sister’s death took away that part of how he defined himself. He writes (and in the interest of space, I replaced sentences with ellipses, so you’ll need to click over to read the whole passage on the first page),
“Six kids!” people would say. “How do your poor folks manage?”
Now, though, there weren’t six, only five. “And you can’t really say, ‘There used to be six,’ ” I told my sister Lisa. “It just makes people uncomfortable.”
I recalled a father and son I’d met in California a few years back. “So are there other children?” I asked.
“There are,” the man said. “Three who are living and a daughter, Chloe, who died before she was born, eighteen years ago.”
That’s not fair, I remember thinking. Because, I mean, what’s a person supposed to do with that?
First and foremost, I would argue that he’s still one of six, even if one of the six is no longer here in the same way that he is a child born to two parents, even if his mother has since passed away.
Death is common. In fact, every single person on earth will experience death, even if they live completely separate from the rest of society. 105 people die in this world every minute. In the time that it will take you to read this post, there will be hundreds of people gone from this planet. And there will be people who will know those people.
I guess his sentence gave me pause because I couldn’t see how bringing up death isn’t fair; how not discussing death got chosen as a societal norm.
He asks what are they supposed to do with the news that his sister is no longer here? They’re supposed to understand him better. They’re supposed to think about mortality. They’re supposed to be clued in to the realities of this world. People die. Sometimes people die because they take their own life. Sometimes people die before they’re even born. Sometimes people die of old age. But in all cases, those people deserve to be discussed, because being discussed is a way of being counted, of saying, “they were here” whether it was only for a few months inside a woman’s womb or for 80 years, walking around this planet.
He ends his piece with a conversation with a realtor, returning to this idea of now being one of five.
“So is that one of your sisters?” she asked, pointing to Gretchen.
“It is,” I said. “And so are the two women standing on either side of her.”
“Then you’ve got your brother,” she observed. “That makes five—wow! Now, that’s a big family.”
I looked at the sunbaked cars we would soon be climbing into, furnaces every one of them, and said, “Yes. It certainly is.”
It is his choice whether he chooses to bring up Tiffany or not, especially with a stranger. But it makes me sad to think that he felt it was polite to refrain from explaining that there was someone missing from their group. No one should ever feel that they need to refrain from bringing up someone they loved.
This concept of shifting identity is familiar to those experiencing infertility or loss. Everyone who experiences death experiences a loss of their personal definition; of who they are in relation to the world. Sedaris says that he was one of six and now needs to redefine himself as one of five.
The childless mother requires a similar redefinition: especially if in your head, you have been thinking of yourself as a mother-to-be-to-a-live-child for months or years. The definition may come about early on: I thought I would be a mother, but this is not happening as I thought it would. I thought I was fertile, but I’m actually infertile. The definition may grow in length as much as it loses in specifics: I am now a mother to a child via adoption. Or it may change completely: I was a mother-to-be-to-a-live-child and now I am a woman living child-free after infertility. The definition may be written by circumstances beyond your control, or you may rewrite the definition yourself. These are only three examples; any life crisis requires the person to redefine themselves over and over again.
Sedaris’s article is a beautiful piece if you’re up to reading it. And its existence and this post prove that we should talk about death when we want to talk about death; because in doing so, we start important conversations. I would have never written this if he hadn’t brought up the fact that he used to be one of six. It’s okay to make people uncomfortable; to shake them up a bit. It makes them think.